Atlanta Community Food Bank

by Mary Beth Bishop

What’s a better combo for a child than a cheerful book, a snuggly cat, and the chance to make a difference for a furry friend in need?

At a shelter in Doraville, a child can grab a book and yoga mat, then read a story to a cat awaiting a home.

Furkids is just one of many organizations across metro Atlanta where young volunteers are welcomed. If you’d like to pitch in as a family for a worthy cause, kids can plant gardens, write to soldiers, make sandwiches for people who are hungry, or help in many other ways.

Furkids’ Samantha Shelton says the reading program is a double win. Children can practice their reading skills, “and it’s a comfort for the cats to have someone to cuddle up with. Hearing someone’s voice is encouraging to them,” says the CEO and president of the no-kill shelter. Children of all ages come in to brush the cats, choose a toy from the shelter’s stash and make a new friend. Older kids can throw balls to the dogs at another Furkids shelter in Alpharetta.

When you teach your kids to make a habit out of doing things for others, the charities aren’t the only ones who are likely to see benefits that last.

Tran Bui Smith of Roswell volunteers often with her children and says that the spirit of helping has become part of their daily lives. Her son Jackson is always eager to hold a door open for someone or to offer up a hug. His sister Ava makes get-well cards and loves to donate toys she thinks other kids will like.

Smith coordinates the metro Atlanta chapter of Little Helpers, which provides a steady stream of opportunities for families who’d like to volunteer. The group has cleaned up parks, for instance, and taken treats to police officers and firefighters.

Hidden Benefits of Volunteering

The benefits of volunteering can be even more timely when bad news is in the headlines, says child psychologist Carol Kleemeier who practices in Tucker. The chance to step in and make a difference empowers children with the knowledge “that we can do something to fix the issues that face the community,” the psychologist explains.

Furkids’ Shelton agrees that the experience can shape a child in vital ways. “As a parent I think it’s important to demonstrate kindness,” she says. “Kindness to animals transfers to kindness to one another. That’s why when I started the organization I wanted to make sure that our doors are always open to children.” Her daughter Emily is 7.

Encouraging compassion in children should be as vital as helping them succeed in school and sports, says Smith. Key to a meaningful experience is talking with your children to make sure they understand who  they are helping and why.

At the Atlanta Community Food Bank, kids don’t just sort and pack food; they learn details from organizers about the needs that they are filling. In addition, they watch a video that spotlights some of the families who’ve benefited from the program.

“We are really able to put a face on hunger and on some of the issues in the community,” says public relations manager Chaundra Luckett.

“It’s important to have a conversation throughout the process so it won’t feel like another playdate,” says Smith. Kids should also be encouraged to engage with employees at the site where they’re volunteering and ask any questions they might have.

Benefits of volunteering include an increased sense of responsibility and self-worth, Kleemeier says. Other benefits are lessons in patience and communication, says the psychologist who adds that children might also come away from the experience having learned new skills.

Children also learn how much can be accomplished by working with others toward a goal. “Volunteering helps children to see that when people work together to solve problems, they can have greater goals than they could if they were working by themselves,” Kleemeier explains.

The experience can also teach kids that it doesn’t take a lot of time to fill an important need. “They see that in several hours they can make a difference,” notes Luckett of the food bank.

Surprising Joy and Unexpected Education

And then there is the joy. You might be surprised at the thrill your child will get from taking on an important role in helping someone else. Shelton loves to watch “the confidence and pure joy that comes over the face of a child” when an eager cat crawls into a waiting lap. It’s almost as if the cats can sense which child or adult really needs a snuggle from a furry friend, she says.

“If you make time to give back, you see the world in a different way,” says Smith from Little Helpers. “It’s not just about the small space that you’re in.”

Her kids, ages 8 and 11, learned a lot about poverty when their group toured a homeless shelter and made sandwiches. And they had lots of questions about life at the shelter: How many people lived there? How long might they have to stay before they found a home?

Their eyes were also opened by how much joy a simple meal could bring to a person who’s had to go without. “If our kids are hungry, they open the refrigerator or pantry,” Smith says. “But children need to know that it’s not that way for everyone.”

Find the Right Opportunity

The huge number of opportunities to volunteer means that parents need to do their research. “Sit down and talk to your kids and see what their interests are,” says Luckett of the food bank.

How old is old enough? Many charities have age requirements, and many require parents or other adults to be present with the children. But kids are never too young to make a difference in small ways. When her group visits senior citizens, the younger children love to call out bingo numbers.

As for older children who may be reluctant to take the time to volunteer, parents might try encouraging them to bring a friend along to make the experience more enjoyable, Kleemeier suggests.

Entrepreneurial-minded kids can also join in with some buddies to create their own activity to benefit a cause that they care about. Food drives and lemonade stands are age-old ways to help, but why not encourage your children to add some fun touches? The Little Helpers have delivered donations of socks and underwear while wearing mismatched socks and superhero costumes.

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